The begining of Thanksgiving in New England


"On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum ['Squanto'], a distrusted captive whom Massasoit had reluctantly brought along as an interpreter.
"Massasoit was an adroit politician but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated [from disease] - indeed the foreigners ahead now occupied one of the empty sites. It was all he could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag's longtime enemies - the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon Massasoit feared they would take advantage of the Wampanoag's weakness and overrun them.
"Desperate threats require desperate countermeasures. In a gamble Massasoit intended to abandon, even reverse, a long-standing policy. Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods - copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets - unlike anything else in New England. Moreover they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers' used socks. ...
"Over time the Wampanoag, like other native societies in coastal New England, had learned how to manage the European presence. They encouraged the exchange of goods, but would only allow their visitors to stay ashore for brief, carefully controlled excursions. ... Now Massasoit was visiting a group of British with the intent of changing the rules. He would permit the newcomers to stay for an unlimited time - provided they formally allied with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.
"Tisquantum the interpreter had shown up alone at Massasoit's home a year and a half before. He spoke fluent English because he had lived for several years in Britain. But Massasoit didn't trust him. ... And he refused to use him to negotiate with the colonists until he had another independent means of communication with them. ... Their meeting was a critical moment in American history. The foreigners called their colony Plymouth; they themselves were the famous Pilgrims. As schoolchildren learn, at that meeting the Pilgrims obtained the services of Tisquantum - usually known as 'Squanto.'

"[In our high school texts the story is told that] 'a friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier Captain Miles Standish taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.' The story isn't wrong so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading."

Charles C. Mann, 1491, Vintage

Date: Copyright 2005, 2006 by Charles C. Mann
Pages: 34-36